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Young, undecided and in the front line of Scotland’s indyref mindgames

The Conversation - Thu, 24/04/2014 - 00:38

To make an obvious point, the younger generation’s opinions on the referendum have not been formed by as much experience as those of the older generation. Many potential voters were not alive throughout Margaret Thatcher’s premiership and were not politically conscious during those of John Major or even Tony Blair – remember that 16-year-olds were only nine when Blair left office. I myself was just eight when Scotland’s devolved parliament was established in 1999.

Though surveys indicate that young voters are less likely to be undecided than the population as a whole, their lack of experience may well make them easier to influence. If the political strategists can succeed at influencing them, it may well swing the vote in September.

Spin when you’re winning

Just like in any election, voters have to contend with spin, propaganda and the opinions of those with power and vested interests. Every word written or spoken to us, every image used and even details down to things like politicians' facial expressions will usually have been carefully considered by a panel of individuals intent on persuading us and influencing the outcome of the referendum.

Some of this will be in plain sight, but decision making can also be influenced by manipulating what we in psychology call the “cognitive unconscious”. As most people will be aware, the power of associations is extremely important in psychology.

Ivan Pavlov’s classic study of 1902 showed that if a bell is played enough times before a dog is fed, eventually the sound of the bell will cause the dog to salivate.

Pavlov’s dog, slaved by the bell! Alan, CC BY-SA

This so-called classical conditioning occurs in humans too. A persuasive study by the well known US psychologist John Bargh nearly 20 years ago looked into the power of unconsciously formed patterns of information. Participants were asked to make sentences out of groups of words – some had to work with words related to politeness, some with words related to rudeness and some with neutral words.

Then participants had to walk down the hall and present their work to a professor who was conversing with someone else. Those who had worked with polite words waited longer to interrupt the conversation than those in the neutral group, while those working with rude words interrupted it faster.

Old dogs, new tricks

In another experiment, some participants had to form sentences with words related to old age while others were given words that were unrelated to it. The old age group got up and left the room more slowly than the others did. Such studies show the power of unconscious activations on decision making and behaviour that can happen without people being consciously aware that they are being manipulated.

There are numerous examples of such associations in the present debate. The saltire has become synonymous with independence, for instance, and so has the use of Yes in a particular font. On the other hand the pound has become a hallmark of unity.

It is important to know where our opinions and attitudes come from and why we hold them. Doing so allows us to maintain power over our decisions. Even if your opinions are based on those of your parents, this is preferable to having opinions based around selectively presented facts, biases and – in some cases – all-out manipulations.

Studies have shown that it becomes more and more likely that people will fall back on their attitudes to help them make decisions as the opportunity to use available knowledge decreases – something that may happen because of perpetual mind games and disinformation that can get in the way.

The best tool we can arm ourselves with to avoid the manipulation of our unconscious in this way is information. Inform yourself as best you can with objective and impartial facts. In a political world where things are rarely said or shown by accident, real facts are the best way to make informed decisions.

Paul Aitken does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

To know whether we face a new dot com bubble, look at how we work and consume

The Conversation - Thu, 24/04/2014 - 00:36

The ongoing weakness in tech stocks brings with it the inevitable portent that we are witnessing the bursting of a new dot com bubble akin to that of the late nineties and early noughties.

Shortly before the latest instability peaked, commentators sensed something in the offing. As early as 2011, signals sounded that a bubble might inflate due to the market’s thirst for fertile pastures after the collapse of the housing boom.

The figures lend support to this outlook. The Nasdaq index, on which many US tech companies trade, reached a 14-year high at the beginning of March, but has suffered reversals since then.

On 10 April, the index dropped 3.1%, a one-day fall unmatched since 2011. Facebook lost 17% on its April high. Twitter’s value fell a quarter. UK internet companies Just Eat and Boohoo plunged to recent flotation prices. Others dipped below their initial valuations. Overall, the Nasdaq has lost 5.4% of its value since those highs of a month or so ago.

And hints of future turmoil abound. Google and IBM have both reported falls in revenue, compounding bleak expectations for tech stocks. Chinese web firm Weibo’s IPO raised far less than anticipated.

Things may or may not be as bad as Marc Faber, the editor and publisher of the Gloom, Boom & Doom Report, suggests. But the so-called “tech wreck” offers an opportune moment to revisit the period, roughly stretching from 1995 until 2003, when we last saw a crash based on the falling fortunes of fledgling US tech and new media start-ups.

Working and consuming

Looking at the everyday sociological factors that underpin the movements of high finance, my research on the first dot com boom and bust suggests two things about today’s potential tech bubble. On one hand, we should consider the work that people do in the businesses subject to these feverish valuations. On the other, we should understand the way people use and consume what these businesses produce.

Flexible working hours are common in tech and social media. And most importantly, the work performed has an immaterial and intangible quality. These factors provide an uneasy basis for the measurement and projection of output, productivity and value.

Keep on clicking. Spencer E Holtaway, CC BY-NC-ND

If it is hard to track the productivity of the flexible-working producers, then it is nigh on impossible to measure the contribution of the consumers. As Tiziana Terranova suggests, the wealth creation of firms such as Google and Facebook takes place largely outside the workplace. Instead of relying solely upon the exploitation of the time of employees, the time of web users is monetised too. Clicks, comments and views on social media sites transcend the capacity of the companies and their investors to keep tabs on what precisely is being generated.

Hence, the value of what is produced seems expansive, and, perhaps, beyond measure. The work of Christian Marazzi responds radically to this condundrum. In immeasurability, he says, lies the origin of present-day stock market exuberance and uncertainty.

Some accounts suggest that exuberant, uncertain valuations represent misapprehensions of the nitty-gritty of production. Marazzi, however, reckons that these valuations show the difficulty of establishing a clear picture of what is produced and consumed where immaterial commodities are created and used. Nowhere is this more profound than in the tech sectors seeing their stock prices head skywards.

Despite this difficulty, Marazzi claims, the financial markets do still constitute a flexible enough framework for repeated attempts at establishing the worth of this immeasurable expanse of time and effort. The first dot com boom and bust seems to have been one such attempt. Recent movements suggest that we may be living through the unravelling of a second attempt, bearing potentially similar consequences to the first.

Work and non-work

The early dot com enterprises displayed features which exemplify radical changes in how, when and where production takes place in contemporary capitalism.

Andrew Ross’s ethnography of the typical dot com firm of the nineties and noughties reported several key trends. Fun, flexible working practices promised greater freedom to workers whilst inducing greater commitment. Jobs revolving around the creation and manipulation of symbols and emotions blurred the boundaries between work, leisure and life itself. Mobiles and laptops encouraged constant connection to networks and the extension of work outside the workplace and into the home.

The everyday conditions in work and consumption from which the first boom and bust arose have been progressively augmented. In recent years, the conditions that made the dot com firms so hard to quantify and value have only become more insistent. New ways of working incubated in Silicon Valley have attained a far broader status in many other industries and professions. And that has helped to make all of us potential producers, at all times, as the lines blur between work and non-work.

Work-life balance Bryan, CC BY-NC

In the UK, for example, we can see the spread of zero-hours contracts and an increase in part-time and freelance working practices. My own research has suggested lip-service, at the very most, is paid to the fun, flexible work regimes of Silicon Valley which sparked the change. And the development of online social networks and handheld digital technology continues apace, enabling endless virtual access to the production and consumption of whatever the tech firms are creating for us.

All this only shows the proliferation of the raw material with which investors and markets operate when they make enthusiastic and sometimes ill-fated attempts to measure what is happening. The objective conditions for a bubble are still there in the stuff of everyday life, perhaps even more so than before.

Valuations of tech and dot com stocks are not inflated distortions of the underlying reality of the “real economy”, but rather are imperfect reflections of actually-existing trends in the way that goods and services are produced.

One response to the 2008 financial crisis has been to hanker for a return to the safe haven of “making things”, unsullied by the supposed corruption of the financial system and the intangibility of tech. This is a myth. The production and consumption of commodities are part and parcel of the exuberant valuations of tech stocks, and cannot be sequestered away.

If there is to be a crisis on the back of the bursting of this new bubble, we should steel ourselves in advance to acknowledge that we cannot escape this supposedly “false” economy through the resurrection of a non-existent “real” one. They are now one and the same.

Frederick H. Pitts receives funding from the Economic and Social Research Council.

Joe Hockey does want to frighten the horses ahead of May 13

The Conversation - Wed, 23/04/2014 - 23:52

Treasurer Joe Hockey has dwelt extensively on the burden of the age pension bill. AAP/Alan Porritt

If Joe Hockey’s first budget runs into problems, it won’t be for want of effort to construct a dramatic narrative about pain, personal responsibility and Australia’s fiscal health.

The Treasurer believes in laying it on thick, whether he’s talking about the frightening state of the nation’s overall finances or the need for individuals to carry heavier loads.

It was a “sobering observation” that Australia wasn’t doing as well on repairing its budget as many other developed countries, he told a function hosted by the Spectator.

And to anyone who might gripe about co-payments or other nasties needed to curb spending there was the stricture: “It is appropriate that those who use government services should contribute towards their cost.”

All treasurers engage in pre-budget massage – usually of the remedial kind - but Hockey, with his end of the “age of entitlement” philosophical framework, is going to great lengths. His Wednesday night pitch was backed by details on projected spending growth from the Audit Commission’s report, which will be released next Thursday.

British journalist Andrew Neil, interlocutor at the Spectator function, gave him a bit of curry for exaggerating Australia’s troubles when one looked at those of other countries.

The question is whether the Australian public will buy the story about how seriously broken the budget is, requiring drastic actions – including “winding back some spending that people have come to take for granted” - before it’s too late.

Take the expected increase (in the long term) of the pension age to 70. Polling by Essential released on Wednesday found 20% approve and 71% disapprove. Asked at what age people should be able to receive the pension, 58% favoured the present 65.

This indicates that change will be a big selling challenge, but doesn’t necessarily suggest it is an impossible one. Labor encountered much flack when it announced the age would rise to 67 by 2023 but eventually the issue settled down.

Hockey in his speech dwelt extensively on the burden of the age pension bill, which is nearly $40 billion – 10% of outlays - rising to $72 billion by 2023-24 – an average annual growth rate of 6.2%.

He pointed out that four out of five Australians over 65 receive a full or part pension, and if concessionary card holders are taken into account, only 14% of older people receive no government payments.

While many pensioners are obviously very needy, a lot of these recipients are getting help from the government because politicians (such as John Howard) threw out sweeteners to attract or keep the support of older voters. With the ageing population the situation is indeed unsustainable over the long haul.

Also unsustainable, in another way, is the argument Hockey tried to make for the quarantining of Tony Abbott’s paid parental leave scheme from the slashing and burning.

Leaving aside the planned national disability insurance scheme (46.2% projected annual average growth over the coming decade), the area with the largest estimated average annual growth rate in the period is child care and paid parental leave (11.5%).

Hockey told his audience the PPL scheme (believed to be considered extravagant by the Audit Commission) would help women remain engaged with their employer, lift female workforce participation, and provide a boost to women’s retirement savings.

It was also a “huge benefit” for many small and medium-sized businesses, which would be able to match the PPL offered by larger companies and the public service.

Even if it does all the things claimed, which experts believe unlikely, the introduction of such a scheme (providing wealthier women up to $75,000 over six months) does not fit the budget narrative of the need for spending restraint over the medium term.

Hockey always knew this plan was over the top and presumably hates having to pretend otherwise. He’ll be quietly clapping if and when the Senate trims it back.

The PPL plan was one of Abbott’s most flamboyant promises and he’s determined to keep it (to the extent the parliament will let him).

Now he is making another, pre-budget promise that seems, on the face of it, to defy all that is being signalled in the Hockey story.

“We are going to keep our [election] commitments,” Abbott said again on Wednesday.

There was just a slight wrinkle. Asked if he meant no election promises would be broken he said: “Now, I’m not going to say, well you know there was 27 and a half commitments and you know 26 and three-quarters are going to be kept. We will keep our commitments.

“Now, I’m sure lots of people will argue and say, ‘Well what about this and what about that?’ We will keep our commitments, because the point I keep making, if there is one thing that we learnt from the fate of the former government, you cannot say one thing before an election and do the opposite immediately afterwards.”

Make of this what you will. Presumably a lot of creative timing in implementing measures and some redefinitions will have to be employed to avoid a budget that might get away with being seen as mean but can’t afford to look tricky as well.

Listen to the newest Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, with guest Jamie Briggs, assistant minister for infrastructure and regional development, here.

Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Cybersecurity czar dodges questions over IT security

The Conversation - Wed, 23/04/2014 - 23:35

Cyber security has been a hot item on the UK government agenda in the last few years. Francis Maude of the Cabinet Office is the minister in charge. So if anyone was looking for answers in this area, his department would be an obvious place to send questions to, wouldn’t it? However, when Maude became so fed up with government IT that he brought his own wifi router to work, the ensuing questions appeared a bit too close to home.

A Freedom of Information request was submitted to the department in October last year asking for information about Maude’s personal wifi plans and the wider security policies in place at the Cabinet Office.

But answer came there none. The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has been forced to step in over the department’s failure to answer the questions posed in the FoI request.

The BYOD conundrum

It has been estimated that 62% of UK adults now own a smartphone, with the overwhelming majority carrying it with them at all times, including at work. Sometimes we are asked to use our personal devices for work purposes and sometimes the temptation to use them instead of, or in addition to, computers provided at work, is too strong. This Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) culture leads to all kinds of problems.

This includes losing control of the data contained in your device, be it commercial or personal, as well as the possibility of introducing malware into your organisation.

The risks associated with personal information held by the organisation are sufficiently serious to have attracted the attention of the ICO, which is in charge of enforcing data protection legislation.

In March 2013, the ICO found that nearly half of UK workers used their own devices for work purposes, but fewer than three in ten organisations provided BYOD guidelines to staff. It has since released guidelines for organisations to ensure data protection in the context of BYOD.

The crucial advice is that if there is a security breach, the organisation needs to be able to prove that its data remains secured and can be deleted from devices if the need arises. The common solution is mobile device management. This software makes it possible to send updates to mobile devices to stop vulnerabilities, and allows users to remotely lock or wipe devices if they are stolen. Another option is to use separate networks for corporate and “outsider” devices including those owned by staff.

Safe in the Cabinet?

Understandably, there were some incredulous reactions last autumn when it was reported that Maude had brought in his own wifi router in order to get his smartphone and tablet to work in the office.

This was running ahead of a more structural solution to clunky Whitehall IT infrastructure. He has been planning to install a separate hardware infrastructure for the Cabinet Office to allow staff to work using phones and tablets as of April 2014.

Few workers go so far as to bring in their own wifi infrastructure, but the security implications are similar, if not more serious. Remember, a rogue wifi router had also been a crucial component in the Barclays and Santander cyber-robberies which hit the press around the same time.

Questions were raised about the Cabinet Office’s BYOD policy and any security risk analysis that might have taken place in advance of Maude installing a router, many of which could have been answered if the department had provided the information asked for in the October FoI request.

By responding to this FoI request and the broader media furore, the Cabinet Office had an opportunity to take a necessary lead in BYOD cybersecurity advice. But it has so far failed to do so. And as it stands, Maude’s Cyber Security Strategy makes no mention of risks from the inside, let alone those arising from BYOD. This is despite the recommendation that the government should “raise awareness amongst businesses of the threat and actions that they can take to protect themselves”.

There is evidently some work going on in the Cabinet Office on BYOD, relating in particular to the Public Services Network which provides integrated secure services for government bodies. This even has its own FAQ on the topic. So BYOD is clearly on the radar.

Maude’s behaviour is not unusual. “Shadow IT” is a well-known phenomenon. Taking short cuts around corporate installations and procedures should not just be dismissed as irresponsible behaviour. It also indicates a strong need to improve usability – and security measures are often a case in point. Opportunistic as it may have seemed, Maude’s installation of a router should also be seen in this context.

The trouble is, Maude and his team are dealing with highly sensitive information on a daily basis so having clear policies about devices and security is a must. And in his role as cyber security czar, we should expect him to lead by example.

The Cabinet’s Office response to the FoI request could have gone beyond embarrassing admissions. It could have related Maude’s wifi installation to weaknesses in its draft BYOD policy and then proudly presented a new policy that addresses these weaknesses.

It could have said that protecting against deliberate or accidental insider security vulnerabilities, such as those that may arise through BYOD, is an essential part of cybersecurity policy and will be a part of the government’s Cyber Essentials campaign, which aims to help organisations deal with these problems.

The opportunity was missed, though. Earlier this month, the ICO served a Decision Notice on the Cabinet Office, for failing to provide any response to the FoI request beyond the initial acknowledgement. The department now has until 12 May to get its house in order and respond.

Jonathan Baines also contributed to research for this article.

Eerke Boiten is a senior lecturer in the School of Computing at the University of Kent, and Director of the University's interdisciplinary Centre for Cyber Security Research. He receives funding from EPSRC for the CryptoForma Network of Excellence on Cryptography and Formal Methods.

Reading Dickens

Events & seminars - Wed, 23/04/2014 - 23:09
PUBLIC LECTURE Reading Dickens
Wednesday, 23 April 2014 at 11:00 AM - 12:30 PM
China in the World Building (Building 188), Fellows Lane, ANU
This public lecture is part of a conference from 22-24 April - Reading Communities and the Circulation of Print: Australia, China and Britain in the nineteenth century. more»

The Industrial Revolution of the book: Cheap print and new readers

Events & seminars - Wed, 23/04/2014 - 23:09
PUBLIC LECTURE The Industrial Revolution of the book: Cheap print and new readers
Wednesday, 23 April 2014 at 6:00 PM - 7:30 PM
China in the World Building (Building 188), Fellows Lane, ANU
This public lecture is part of a conference from 22-24 April - Reading Communities and the Circulation of Print: Australia, China and Britain in the Nineteenth Century. more»

St George's Day is no time to ignore how people feel about being English

The Conversation - Wed, 23/04/2014 - 22:17

Great Britain vs Little England” was the stark choice posed by deputy prime minister Nick Clegg in his debates with UKIP leader Nigel Farage. This pitch follows hard on the heels of former prime minister Gordon Brown’s failed attempt – first as chancellor and then as prime minister – to promote and codify an encompassing Britishness. The aim was and is to negate the appeal of rival forms of nationalism within the UK, and to ensure that the English remained committed to the post-devolved UK.

Broadly similar sentiments echo more widely in liberal circles. Novelist Martin Amis recently decried the retreat of the English into a carapace of beleaguered whiteness in the wake of the recession.

We see in this a widespread suspicion that when the flag of Saint George is raised, it is a symbol allowing the white working class to express a defensive and inward-looking fear of the “other”. And this is but the latest in a long line of fearful and dismissive judgements about Englishness.

But the last 20 years have actually seen the growth of a more deeply felt and prominent sense of English identity. And there are two good reasons to doubt the characterisation of Englishness as an insular and chauvinist form of nationhood.

The first is that such arguments have a strongly self-fulfilling quality. The exaggerated sense that Englishness is a “forbidden identity” arouses the disapproval of politicians and public authorities who adhere to metropolitan liberal values. And so this tends to make Englishness a flag of convenience for those most angry with the political system and most demotic about issues such as immigration and welfare.

And posing this overly stark choice when it comes to national identity is also unwise because it goes against the grain of contemporary social attitudes. Because of this, it may well accentuate the deepening divide between politicians and public. Despite the current clamour about UKIP and where it garners its support, this is not actually the most important constituency for the idea of Englishness.

My research found there has in fact been a gradual shift among the silent English majority towards a greater sense of identification with England. This goes along with a slight weakening of the sense of affiliation to Britishness and the UK. Just as importantly, the ubiquitous question of what it now means to call yourself English appears to elicit an array of very different answers – as, frankly, it always has.

For the vast majority, finding a sense of English identity and tradition meaningful is compatible with both the conservative and the liberal values that have been at the heart of British political life. English people are for the most part proud of their own sense of tolerance and of the cultural and ethnic diversity of their country.

But they are also increasingly interested in the reclamation of an avowedly English set of traditions, and worried about the implications of the two Unions to which England belongs. Levels of Euroscepticism remain higher in England compared to other parts of the UK, and there are signs that it is not only the Scots and Welsh who are unhappy with the terms of the domestic union.

Indeed, the widespread assumption that the English do not really care about the outcome of the Scottish referendum represents a misreading of a national mood. And this misreading is dangerous – it is very sensitive to the question of how England fares within the Union, whatever the outcome on September 18.

What complicates this story is that this form of national identity remains strikingly divided along both geographical and ethnic lines. For many, especially those living in regions furthest from London, the imagined community of England exists outside the capital city of the UK. London is seen as the haven and beneficiary of political and economic interests that care little for the prospects and well-being of the remainder of the country.

It also remains true that whites are far more likely than those from ethnic minority backgrounds to identity as English. Ethnic minorities remain wary of this form of identification, and keener on Britishness. Their alienation from Englishness is often held up as an illustration of its inherently illiberal character.

And yet, here too there are indications that important changes may be underway. My research uncovered evidence suggesting that younger generations in some minority communities are more likely than their parents to identify with England as the place to which they belong.

Over the past 20 years a subtle and undramatic change in the way that significant numbers of English people feel about their own identity has been underway. This is arguably the most important shift in English self-perception since the 18th century. Without the constructive engagement of those from the liberal and progressive wings of politics and intellectual life, it is all the more likely that this uncertain and fragile sense of identity might morph into the kind of resentful populist nationalism promoted by UKIP.

So this time, Nick, what about “Great Britain and Liberal England”?

Michael Kenny receives funding from the Leverhulme Trust.

NHS watchdog changes could endanger new cancer drugs

The Conversation - Wed, 23/04/2014 - 21:56

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has published new draft proposals laying out major changes to the way it assesses whether new medicines offer value for money for the NHS. These evaluations are difficult – requiring as they do an assessment of the value of life – but are necessary in all healthcare systems that face spiralling costs worldwide. The new proposals, however, could prevent or delay new and effective drugs from reaching patients with cancer.

The draft proposals show that NICE, the body that decides which drugs are available on the NHS in England and Wales, plans to change the parameters its appraisal committees use

End-of-life criteria

Under the current system, NICE gives extra weight in its evaluation of cost-effectiveness if drugs have shown a particular benefit in patients at the end of their lives. The calculations it uses are complex but essentially, if a drug has been shown to add three months of life expectancy to patients who have an incurable illness then the NHS may pay a price significantly higher than it would otherwise pay to roll it out.

The importance of end-of-life criteria is very clear: since 2009, when they were introduced, 12 cancer drugs have been approved on this basis. It is likely that many of these drugs would have been rejected in the absence of end-of-life criteria. The new system proposes to remove the criteria, instead incorporating end-of-life benefit into a broader, less defined measure of what would qualify for a higher price bracket. This risks fewer drug approvals in future.

In addition to removing end-of-life criteria from the drug appraisal system, NICE has also suggested it will remove specific consideration of how innovative a new treatment is. I worry that both of these changes will result in cancer drugs being rejected when under the current system they would have been approved. This could deny cancer patients access to life-extending drugs and dramatically reduce the likelihood of achieving the cancer cures of the future.

At The Institute of Cancer Research in London, we have direct experience of the value of the current drug approval process. For example, a groundbreaking new prostate cancer drug called abiraterone that we discovered has helped thousands of sufferers. Initially approved for patients with late-stage prostate cancer resistant to existing drugs, abiraterone has since gone on to benefit patients in earlier stages of the disease. Yet abiraterone would probably not be approved under the proposed changes.

Stifling innovation risk

By omitting specific consideration of innovation, the new guidelines will discourage the more creative, high-risk drug discovery research. Previously, NICE’s cost-benefit analysis allowed innovation to be rewarded by paying more for innovative drugs, although the definition of innovation was quite loose. In the new proposals, the chance to formalise the importance of developing novel treatment types has been overlooked. The consequences could be very damaging.

Innovative cancer drugs are those with new mechanisms of action – particularly precision medicines that act on new molecular targets derived from basic cancer biology research and the latest genomics studies, and also those that exploit cutting edge immunological research. Innovative drugs are tremendously important because they offer the possibility of major breakthroughs that cannot be achieved with those that simply mimic or marginally enhance the effects of existing drugs.

In recent years, our understanding of cancer has increased dramatically and we’ve learnt that cancer medicine works best when it is personalised to individuals. One of the best examples of developing this kind of personalised, precision medicine is trastuzumab. This has helped extend the lives of breast cancer patients with high tumour levels of the HER2 marker, a protein which drives the growth of their cancer. HER2 is also important in a proportion of stomach cancers and NICE approved trastuzumab use in these patients on the NHS under the old end-of-life criteria. Again, this might not have happened under the new draft proposals.

Tackling drug resistance

Innovation is also essential if we are to overcome the massive problem of drug resistance – the most important challenge facing cancer drug discovery and development today. We now know that resistance arises because cancers are extraordinarily variable and versatile in evolving mechanisms to get around the effects of both molecular targeted and conventional drugs.

An example of an innovative approach to tackle resistance is the discovery and development of Hsp90 inhibitors – a totally new type of drug that we, and only a few other research centres worldwide, have pioneered. These inhibitors have the exciting ability to target several different cancer molecular weaknesses at once, and so can overcome or even prevent drug resistance.

It took costly, high-risk research to develop Hsp90 inhibitors and they have progressed from being a poorly appreciated drug target to one of the most actively pursued in the drug industry today. Leading Hsp90 inhibitors have shown very encouraging results in trials of patients with HER2-positive breast cancers that have become resistant to trastuzumab and patients with non-small cell lung cancer who have become resistant to the widely used molecular targeted drugs erlotinib and crizotinib.

It would be very disappointing if this sort of innovation is not rewarded when it comes to deciding if the NHS will pay so that patients can benefit.

Another crucial benefit arising from both the end-of-life criteria and the current guidance that promotes innovation is that drugs originally approved for “end-of-life” use very often turn out, later on, to benefit patients with earlier stage cancer – as noted above with abiraterone. Also, the current system provides an initial route into the NHS for innovative drugs, which can then subsequently be shown to be effective in the harder-to-treat cancers, especially by combining them with other drugs. New drug combinations could hold the key to tackling drug resistance for many cancers and encouraging innovation is critical for this.

Crucial time

The proposed NICE changes could mean a backward step at a crucial point in the history of cancer drug discovery and development, research and development costs of which are of course very high. Clinical trials are the most expensive part and failure in these is still depressingly common. But the high costs and failure rates are mostly a result of the old one-size-fits-all approach where potential drugs are not targeted to the specific molecular characteristics of individual patients.

The costs of developing personalised drugs will eventually fall because clinical trials supporting drug approval will be smarter, smaller and shorter. Instead of relying on a small number of one-size-fits-all blockbusters, companies will have a larger portfolio of lower volume, personalised precision drugs that are targeted to smaller patient populations. The transition to personalised drugs with reduced prices will take time, but this must happen.

Nonetheless, it’s a hugely exciting time, both in basic cancer research and in creative drug discovery and development. We must not let overly restrictive regulation deprive patients of access to innovative and life-prolonging drugs that are being developed now and in the future.

Paul Workman works at The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR), London which is involved in cancer drug discovery and development research and operates a Rewards to Discoverers scheme. ICR receives income from sales of abiraterone (Janssen) that are reinvested in research. ICR has licensed intellectual property on HSP90 inhibitors to Vernalis and Novartis and may benefit from future income for research. Paul Workman has previously been a consultant for Novartis and Chroma Therapeutics and is a consultant for Astex Pharmaceuticals and Nextech Ventures. He holds shares in Chroma Therapeutics. He has received grant funding from Cancer Research UK, The Wellcome Trust, Medical Research Council, Vernalis, Janssen, Astex Pharmaceuticals, Chroma Therapeutics and the Kidani Trust.

Cutting emissions now makes business sense for industry

The Conversation - Wed, 23/04/2014 - 21:44

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report tells us that CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions are continuing to rise and that, unchecked, climate change will likely have severe effects. This provides opportunity, as well as risk, for industry – but they need to act now to to reduce GHG emissions.

The recent summary report outlines the options for mitigating climate change. In a world where the global population is growing rapidly and quality of life depends on material goods, the task of mitigation is urgent. This will require action to reduce emissions across all sectors, including power generation, buildings, transport, agriculture and industry.

The industrial sector is a major contributor to climate change. According to the latest IPCC report, in 2010 approximately 31% of total emissions came from industrial sources. The International Energy Agency indicates that CO2 emissions from industry could increase by between 45-65% by 2050.

The problem with reducing emissions from the manufacturing sector is that there are very few common technologies and approaches. So where should we be focusing our attention? There are a number of items that should be at the top of our list.

The power of the supply chain

Businesses have the power to influence CO2 emissions up and down the supply chain in many ways. Distributors can pressure manufacturers to be less CO2-intensive, driving reductions in emissions from production. It also helps level the playing field for manufacturers as low-carbon becomes an additional criteria together with price and quality. Businesses can influence change in the transport sector through management of their vehicle fleets and shipping, as well as driving change in buildings through adoption of new and efficient practises. Businesses also have the power to increase demand for low carbon products, using advertising.

Businesses are waking up to this reality – at the recent Grantham Annual lecture, Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, said, “Left unchecked, climate change has the potential to become a significant barrier to our growth strategy, and that of just about every other company.”

“It is only by tackling climate change in a systemic way that we can deliver growth for the global economy in the 21st century,” he said. But to tackle climate climate change we need more CEOs to take action.

Open up the conversation

Improving the efficiency of processes in manufacturing could greatly reduce carbon emissions across all business sectors. This could include process-specific changes such as upgrading to more efficient kilns in the cement sector as well as technologies which can be applied across a wide range of processes such as improvements to steam and motor systems. There is no doubt that these technologies should be adopted wherever possible.

But adoption of energy efficient technologies in practise is not straightforward. A range of economic and logistical factors can effect the decision to invest in energy efficiency improvements. Importantly, government needs business to talk openly and honestly about these challenges. In return, the UK government needs to make its support for retaining a manufacturing sector clear.

This is certainly an area where interest is gaining, as a recent review on Decarbonisation of heat in industry indicates – but more work needs to be done.

Carbon capture and storage

The application of carbon capture and storage, or CCS, to the industrial sector should be actively and urgently pursued, perhaps even as a precursor to CCS in the power sector. For many energy-intensive industries, the task of reducing their emissions by 80% is virtually impossible. But CCS is one of the few technologies which could achieve this goal as, in many cases, it is easier and cheaper than in the power sector.

If we delay action on CCS for too long, with the carbon price expected to rise, energy-intensive industries could face crippling costs with no way to reduce their emissions. Awareness of the key role of CCS in the industrial sector is growing, as indicated by projects such as the Teesside Low Carbon Programme.

Policy clarity

The need for clarity and certainty in climate policy cannot be stressed enough. Businesses will not make the necessary investments in efficient and low-carbon technologies on the back of tentative policies.

Businesses need the certainty that new policies will remain in place - independent of government changes and economic climate - long enough to see returns on their investment. The IPCC report has made it clear that the cost of delaying action will be greater than acting now. Politicians and businesses need to respond.

Tamaryn Napp has received funding from the EPSRC and worked on consultancy projects (through Imperial Consultants) for the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC).

Habitable exoplanets are bad news for humanity

The Conversation - Wed, 23/04/2014 - 21:43

Last week, scientists announced the discovery of Kepler-186f, a planet 492 light years away in the Cygnus constellation. Kepler-186f is special because it marks the first planet almost exactly the same size as Earth orbiting in the “habitable zone” – the distance from a star in which we might expect liquid water, and perhaps life.

What did not make the news, however, is that this discovery also slightly increases how much credence we give to the possibility of near-term human extinction. This because of a concept known as the Great Filter.

The Great Filter is an argument that attempts to resolve the Fermi Paradox: why have we not found aliens, despite the existence of hundreds of billions of solar systems in our galactic neighbourhood in which life might evolve? As the namesake physicist Enrico Fermi noted, it seems rather extraordinary that not a single extraterrestrial signal or engineering project has been detected (UFO conspiracy theorists notwithstanding).

This apparent absence of thriving extraterrestrial civilisations suggests that at least one of the steps from humble planet to interstellar civilisation is exceedingly unlikely. The absence could be caused because either intelligent life is extremely rare or intelligent life has a tendency to go extinct. This bottleneck for the emergence of alien civilisations from any one of the many billions of planets is referred to as the Great Filter.

Are we alone?

What exactly is causing this bottleneck has been the subject of debate for more than 50 years. Explanations could include a paucity of Earth-like planets or self-replicating molecules. Other possibilities could be an improbable jump from simple prokaryotic life (cells without specialised parts) to more complex eukaryotic life – after all, this transition took well over a billion years on Earth.

Proponents of this “Rare Earth” hypothesis also argue that the evolution of complex life requires an exceedingly large number of perfect conditions. In addition to Earth being in the habitable zone of the sun, our star must be far enough away from the galactic centre to avoid destructive radiation, our gas giants must be massive enough to sweep asteroids from Earth’s trajectory, and our unusually large moon stabilises the axial tilt that gives us different seasons.

These are just a few prerequisites for complex life. The emergence of symbolic language, tools and intelligence could require other such “perfect conditions” as well.

Or is the filter ahead of us?

While emergence of intelligent life could be rare, the silence could also be the result of intelligent life emerging frequently but subsequently failing to survive for long. Might every sufficiently advanced civilisation stumble across a suicidal technology or unsustainable trajectory? We know that a Great Filter prevents the emergence of prosperous interstellar civilisations, but we don’t know whether or not it lies in humanity’s past or awaits us in the future.

For 200,000 years humanity has survived supervolcanoes, asteroid impacts, and naturally occurring pandemics. But our track record of survival is limited to just a few decades in the presence of nuclear weaponry. And we have no track record at all of surviving many of the radically novel technologies that are likely to arrive this century.

Esteemed scientists such as Astronomer Royal Martin Rees at the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Existential Risk point to advances in biotechnology as being potentially catastrophic. Others such as Stephen Hawking, Max Tegmark and Stuart Russell, also with the Cambridge Centre, have expressed serious concern about the exotic but understudied possibility of machine superintelligence.

Let’s hope Kepler-186f is barren

When the Fermi Paradox was initially proposed, it was thought that planets themselves were rare. Since then, however, the tools of astronomy have revealed the existence of hundreds of exoplanets. That just seems to be the tip of the iceberg.

But each new discovery of an Earth-like planet in the habitable zone, such as Kepler-186f, makes it less plausible that there are simply no planets aside from Earth that might support life. The Great Filter is thus more likely to be lurking in the path between habitable planet and flourishing civilisation.

If Kepler-186f is teeming with intelligent life, then that would be really bad news for humanity. For that fact would push back the Great Filter’s position further into the technological stages of a civilisation’s development. We might then expect that catastrophe awaits both our extraterrestrial companions and ourselves.

In the case of Kepler-186f, we still have many reasons to think intelligent life might not emerge. The atmosphere might be too thin to prevent freezing, or the planet might be tidally locked, causing a relatively static environment. Discovery of these hostile conditions should be cause for celebration. As philosopher Nick Bostrom once said:

The silence of the night sky is golden … in the search for extraterrestrial life, no news is good news. It promises a potentially great future for humanity.

Andrew Snyder-Beattie does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Performance-related pay won't motivate teachers

The Conversation - Wed, 23/04/2014 - 21:33

This Easter Monday, members of the National Union of Teachers voted in favour of a motion for strike action this summer. The threat of industrial action reflects an ever deepening rift between teachers and Michael Gove, the secretary of state for education, against a backdrop of unpopular reforms and name calling.

Among the most ostracised of these reforms is the dismantling of traditional experience-to-salary structures – to be replaced with performance-related-pay. Guidance on the changes was introduced in September 2013, with the first pay rises based on performance starting in September 2014. In defence of his reform, Gove argues a link between performance and pay will “make teaching a more attractive career and a more rewarding job.”

Yet Gove, perhaps because he is an avid free marketeer, misses the point. Teachers are not bankers or stockbrokers (or Times editors). They are not seduced by the carrot of ever-increasing financial gain.

Financial gain, on its own, is a self-centred motivator and serves no purpose beyond the temporary gratification that money confers. Teaching, on the other hand, is a mutually rewarding occupation that serves the ongoing interests of both teachers and their students. By imposing economic sanctions on this precious relationship, we corrode the very meaning of teaching itself.

A bad idea

To understand why this is the case, it is important to understand how humans are motivated. We engage in certain activities not only for their tangible outcomes, but also for their implicit satisfaction. Harry Harlow, a primitive psychologist, demonstrated this over half a century ago when he observed that the satisfaction monkeys derived from mastering a maze task was so strong that they would even forgo food to do so.

This is where neoliberal ideology and human motivation begin to conflict. Motivation is not a commodity to be traded for the highest price. It originates from within and necessarily antagonises with any outside influence. Just ask teachers why they teach, they will tell you that they value the benefits and personal satisfaction that the job confers – it isn’t all about the money.

This, intrinsic motivation, is particularly important for teachers. It’s the motivational force that sustains their enjoyment in the face of external pressure and underpins their extra-curricular support for students. More than this, though, intrinsic motivation gives teachers impetus to engage in energetic and creative thought processes that enhance the quality of their teaching provision.

It won’t work on teachers. nist6dh, CC BY-SA

Research from other professions shows us that teachers who teach from a place of personal satisfaction are likely to be healthier, more satisfied, less inclined to burnout and, importantly, perform better than those who do not. Why, then, would we want to discourage teachers from harnessing their own motivational resources?

This is the most pernicious of Gove’s criticisms. He assumes that when self-interest is propelled upon people it would act in the same way markets do – by motivating. Yet, inconveniently, contemporary research supports the seminal work of Harlow and suggests that this ideology is only correct when tasks require little cognition, or are poorly paid in the first place.

When tasks require more than a small degree of cognitive activation, and pay is perceived as equitable relative to living costs, rewards are in fact demotivating. In a synthesis of 128 controlled experiments, consistent negative effects of rewards were reported on intrinsic motivation. These observations may not be intuitive to a society inculcated by economic discourse, but are in line with modern approaches to motivation which emphasise the salutogenic role of self-determination.

Impacts on students

And it isn’t only teachers that are harmed by performance-related pay. Children’s learning and development in school may also suffer.

It is well documented that when teachers feel pressured to produce certain outcomes the reaction is, typically, to pass along that pressure to their students in the form of control – to elicit short-term achievement. This may seem a somewhat controversial hypothesis, but it is supported by evidence.

Worryingly, there is also evidence to suggest children’s learning is not helped by teaching practises that emphasise pressure to achieve. In an exemplary American study, researchers had college students study science material with either the aim of teaching it to somebody else or with the expectation of being tested on it. Results revealed that those who learnt the material to teach, relative to those who learnt to take a test, demonstrated higher creative thought and better conceptual learning.

Yet it isn’t only children’s learning strategies that are undermined by pressure – their tendency to engage in school work is also weakened. Researchers in Israel, for instance, found that pressuring behaviours by teachers made children less likely to persist with a task in the face of adversity. Hence, pressure is a double edged sword that instigates short-term effort at the expense of perseverance.

Now, here’s the rub: attempting to commoditise motivation treads a dangerous path. It replaces the high-quality intrinsic motivation that teachers bring to the classroom with poorer quality extrinsic motives that, as we have seen, create conflict and pressure.

In this way, performance related pay for otherwise intrinsically motivated occupations, such as teaching, is an unnecessary and counterproductive initiative. It gambles on the utility of self-interest for improving standards, in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary. This isn’t a liberal conspiracy, Mr Gove, its a simple case of the evidence disagreeing with your deep-set ideology.

Thomas Curran does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Means testing and co-payments part of fixing the budget: Hockey

The Conversation - Wed, 23/04/2014 - 19:46

Repairing the budget will require more use of means testing and co-payments, Treasurer Joe Hockey has warned, in a speech also renewing his criticism of “corporate welfare”.

Hockey appealed to people not to judge his May 13 budget on what they got or lost in the short term. It was about “our quality of life for the years ahead”.

While indicating the budget will mostly impose pain, Hockey flagged that Tony Abbott’s signature generous paid parental leave scheme still enjoys protection and that there will be a boost to infrastructure spending.

Drawing on its projections on spending growth, Hockey said the Commission of Audit report, with its 86 recommendations, will be released next Thursday.

He told a function hosted by the Spectator magazine that while stronger growth was part of addressing the budget problem, it wouldn’t be enough to get back into the black.

Without policy change, to return to surplus within five years would require real annual economic growth of 5.25%, far beyond the current potential growth rate of about 3.25%.

Nor could the problem be solved just through increasing taxes. Without policy change, in a decade an extra three million taxpayers would have taxable income falling above the $80,000 threshold that sees additional earnings taxed at the top or second rate of 45 or 37 cents.

“Those who may oppose the hard savings measures necessary to deliver genuine fiscal repair would do well to recognise the highly regressive nature of fiscal drag,” Hockey said. The three million would not be “High Street executives on the top marginal rate but hard working wage and salary earners on Main street”.

“The only sustainable solution is to wind back the excessive levels of spending,” Hockey said.

This would mean difficult decisions at the individual program and payment level, winding back some spending that people “have come to take for granted”.

“Means testing must become an even more important part of Australia’s transfer system to ensure the sustainability of our income support payments. Support must be targeted to those most in need,” he said.

With the budget set to impose a co-payment for GP visits, Hockey said “more use of co-payments should be made to encourage some moderation in demand for government-provided goods and services. Nothing is free. Someone always pays.

“It is appropriate that those who use government services should contribute towards their cost.”

He said that in its analysis of spending over the medium term the commission’s report focused on the 15 largest and fastest growing programs predominately across welfare, health, education and defence. They were almost all set to grow faster than average growth in total government spending.

Hockey homed in particularly on the age pension, which he is targeting in the budget. The pension age is expected to be lifted to 70 in the longer term.

“Of the 15 programs, the report observes that the age pension is the largest by a fair margin. The $40 billion we spend on income support through the age pension is much more than we spend on defence, or hospitals, or schools each year. It is our single biggest spending program. Spending on the age pension already takes up 10% of all Commonwealth spending.”

On corporate welfare, Hockey said that too ofter previous governments had been drawn into areas that were better left to the private sector. “It is unsustainable for the Commonwealth to keep devoting significant resources to industry assistance.”

Hockey said the fiscal consolidation program to be revealed in the budget would establish a clear path back to a surplus of 1% of GDP in 2024.

Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Universities should be able to charge students what they want

The Conversation - Wed, 23/04/2014 - 17:19

Top universities should be free to charge domestic students whatever they deem appropriate, according to the Vice-Chancellor and Chancellor of the Australian National University.

In an opinion piece calling for an end to the current cap on fees, ANU Vice-Chancellor Ian Young, also chair of the Group of Eight, and ANU Chancellor Gareth Evans, argued Australia can’t expect to compete with the world’s best universities if we continue to employ a “one size fits all” funding system.

This fixed funding model, they argued, creates a lack of diversity in the higher education sector in Australia. The funding constraints also mean some disciplines are disappearing, class sizes are increasing, and innovation is constrained.

Every university in Australia is funded in exactly the same way for its Australian undergraduate students, said Young and Evans, regardless of the quality or type of educational experience the students receive. They said this “badly needs rethinking".

“In an ideal world, government would fund universities differently for different types and quality of education. But in a challenging economic climate, this is unlikely to happen.”

Evans and Young said the plan to uncap fees would have to involve universities offering equity scholarships that “would also act as a magnet for enhanced philanthropic contributions to support outstanding students”.

The HECS/HELP income contingent loan scheme would continue in the deregulated environment, and the maximum fees universities could charge would be equal to the cost international students pay.

Deakin Vice-Chancellor Jane Den Hollander said while many decision makers seem to be in favour of deregulating fees in order to manage demand driven access, it needs to be examined in terms of what is in the national interest.

“If we deregulate fees, it would create an inequitable system based on a university class structure, and that could lock out many lower SES students,” she said.

The most disadvantaged are still not adequately represented in school retention and success rates in higher education participation, she said.

It is in the national interest to ensure disadvantaged students have “the education they deserve, and our country has the smart and well educated population it needs.”

Ed Byrne, outgoing Vice-Chancellor of Monash University, said his personal view was that as long as equity scholarships were part of the fee deregulated environment, it would be an improvement in the system.

Byrne said the sector was “between a rock and a hard place” because the current system is underfunded but constraints on the public purse mean a funding increase is unlikely.

According to Byrne, if there is no change in the way the sector is funded, Australia won’t have any universities in the top one hundred within a decade.

University of South Australia’s Acting Vice-Chancellor Allan Evans said it was unclear how fee deregulation would directly increase quality in the standards of higher education in Australia: “One could argue that there are far more complex matters that determine university prestige and reputation."

He said there was potential for deregulation to have a negative impact on those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, unless strategies were put in place to support their participation.

If the HECS/HELP scheme were retained in a deregulated environment, people could argue there would not be an impact on overall participation, he said. “Students will think even more critically about the value of the degree that they are pursuing and the added value that a higher-cost institution will provide.”

What does the ultimate ANU undergraduate experience look like?

Events & seminars - Wed, 23/04/2014 - 17:09
OTHER What does the ultimate ANU undergraduate experience look like?
Monday, 28 April 2014 at 4:00 PM - 5:30 PM
ANU Commons, cnr Barry Drive and Marcus Clarke Street, Lena Karmel Lodge, City
In October 2013 Nobel Laureate Professor Brian Schmidt AC said that the ANU educational experience for students should be unlike that provided by any other Australian university. more»

Enough muddling through: higher education needs a shake-up

The Conversation - Wed, 23/04/2014 - 16:29

And so the university fees debate starts again. Over the last few days, several university leaders have come out in favour of increasing fees to fund a better higher education system. A government commitment to reform could come as soon as next month’s federal budget.

Reforms need to address increasing costs and student numbers

We have long been in a situation in which few people support the status quo on university funding, but it survives because none of the alternatives have enough support.

The total funding rates paid to public universities for each student are based on a 25-year-old university expenditure study, with a few ad hoc changes since. While another funding study was conducted in 2011, the then government ignored it. The “student contributions” paid by students are largely based on a 1996 assessment of the relative earning capacities of different graduates, plus 25% added in 2005.

With little science to these numbers, and no system of adapting student funding rates to changes in university costs, the danger is that costs will rise above the capacity of universities to meet them. A major risk here is tying university fortunes to the Commonwealth budget.

Budget cuts to Higher Education

Last year the previous government announced a so-called efficiency dividend, which would reduce Commonwealth expenditure on tuition subsidies and research. With Labor changing its mind this year and blocking its own policies in the Senate, these cuts are now waiting until the new Senate sits in July.

Whatever eventually happens to the efficiency dividend, the finances of universities should not depend on these political machinations. While the Universities Australia lobby group is reviewing funding options, its longstanding position of campaigning only for more public funding exposes its members to unnecessary financial risks.

This is not saying that students necessarily should pay more. But universities should have options other than their own spending cuts to deal with a downturn in government funding. If universities can find genuine efficiency savings, they can keep their student contributions at current levels. Otherwise, they should be able to increase charges and maintain their service levels.

One-size-fits-all funding doesn’t work

Another major criticism of our public higher education funding system is that standardised funding levels lead to a narrow range of education services, at least when compared to countries like the United States. That’s the argument being offered by Ian Young and Gareth Evans from the Australian National University and by Warren Bebbington from the University of Adelaide.

The private higher education sector in Australia has found a niche for itself offering what public universities typically cannot on Commonwealth funding rates, especially small classes and personalised attention for students. But unless some public universities, which have more than 90% market share, can enter these markets, small classes will not be a common experience for Australian students any time soon.

Lower-prestige institutions could benefit

While few people oppose a more diverse higher education system in principle, they are worried about status differences. Extra fee revenue would almost certainly be partly diverted to fund more research, which along with ATAR cut-offs is a main indicator of university prestige.

Despite status concerns among vice-chancellors, lower-prestige institutions could benefit from fee deregulation. Under the current system, they cannot compete on price in the domestic undergraduate market. In the international market, some of them have found good markets among more price-sensitive students.

Although I have supported a more flexible university pricing system for many years, just introducing this now without any other policy changes would not be ideal.

Higher student fees means higher student debt

If student charges went up, most students would borrow money to pay them through the Higher Education Loan Program (HELP). HELP has significant costs in debt not expected to be repaid and in interest subsidies. HELP needs reforming to reduce the cost of deregulated fees to taxpayers.

It is also important to ensure competition in the higher education market to help keep prices down. TAFEs, for example, are moving into higher education courses. They have a strong commitment to accessible and affordable education, but under the current system most of their courses have no tuition subsidies and cost more than a university course. An important recommendation of the demand driven review I conducted with Dr David Kemp is that TAFEs be brought into the public funding system on the same basis as universities.

Australia’s higher education system is reasonably good. But it is struggling to meet the diverse demands of students at a cost government can afford. We might be headed for one of the major turning points in higher education policy history when more muddling through is not enough. Major reform is needed.

Andrew Norton does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

After 450 years, we still don’t know the true value of Shakespeare

The Conversation - Wed, 23/04/2014 - 15:22

The extent of Shakespeare’s legacy 450 years on from his birth is incalculable. But this, of course, does not stop some from trying. To many the crown of Britain’s cultural output, Shakespeare is integral to our very language, widely celebrated, studied, acted, seen. So sourcing hard evidence on the cultural value of Shakespeare is a fool’s game, if a fun one.

To start with, both the words in the concept of “cultural value” are so overloaded, so controversial, that real figures for either of them are impossible to find. Are we talking about the anthropological or the aesthetic version of culture? Are we in the realm of economic use, exchange, symbolic or discursive value? And Shakespeare? Are we referencing the texts, the editions, the amateur and professional productions, or the stories, the adaptations, the movies?

The only evidence we have is about the life, writing and social relationships of the writer. And this cannot hope to explain the crazy variety of ideas and objects that shelter under the most famous name in history.

Shakespeare’s plays came to dominate the cultural production of later times by providing free content for the new theatres that opened after the theatrical lock-down of the English civil war. In their printed version, they became a point of reference for those who claimed the supremacy of English writing in contests with classical literature. They also provided useful, out of copyright, texts for the hugely expanded literature market created by universal education.

The plays’ stories of family dynamics, political conflict and personal tragedy, expressed in eloquent metaphorical poetry, provided the material for new works of political satire, children’s books, and heart-breaking romances. And the attention of critics and commentators reconfigured them as narratives of colonialism, sexual conflict, race relations and the trials of old age.

The work of performers and commentators, printers and editors, adaptors and educators all added value to the old plays and that value was consolidated and secured by amateur clubs and fan-groups. And then came along the heritage organisations and publicly funded theatre companies that continue to reproduce and advocate for “Shakespeare” to this day.

Brand analysts occasionally have fun speculating (in both senses) about the brand value of Shakespeare. But they all concede that the eye-watering sums they cite (US$562 million is the latest) would only work if the brand was owned by a commercial company.

It isn’t: as theatre companies, heritage tourist sites, festival organisers and even educators have found. The Shakespeare Institute, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Shakespeare’s Globe or the Oregon Shakespeare festival may all want to claim the Bard but they know their “Shakespeare” is only as good as the performance, experience, or master’s programme presented in his name.

So perhaps the original texts themselves could help us put a value on “Shakespeare”. Let’s say, one of the 40 remaining complete copies of the First Folio. The most recent sale of a Shakespeare Folio raised £2.5m (1m less than Sotheby’s estimate).

But that price, of course, reflects the rare book market, not the cultural value of Shakespeare. “Shakespeare” can be adopted by the book market, the iPhone case market, the tourist market or the education market but Shakespeare is always only the poster boy in markets whose value rests in the assets, labour and distribution that they use.

So the value that ensues is created by the investment of finance and labour on the part of creators, audiences, universities, or merchandise companies. The asset on which all of these depends – the texts of the plays – is freely available to anyone. It is priceless in the literal sense of having no price because it cannot be exchanged. Even a terrible “Shakespeare” product (squeaking Shakespeare duck anyone?) cannot damage the capacity of the poems and plays to be worked through again and again.

Shakespeare, by contrast, has what economists call “non-rival value”. Like the Rocky Mountains or the music of the Rolling Stones, its value depends upon knowledge and use. It is added to, not diminished, by the number of times it is referenced, developed, used and even consumed. Its value is open-ended, a work in progress, regenerated by conversations as much as by the talent and imagination of those who reform, reframe and reproduce it.

So, on Shakespeare’s 450th birthday, treat yourself to some free Shakespeare. Find it in your granny’s school prize edition of the Complete Works or on the British Library’s digitisation of the original quartos. Read a sonnet or a speech, support your kids’ school play or go to the virtual and physical birthday celebrations taking place world wide.

On the other hand, if you check out all the online versions of Sonnet 2, When forty winters shall besiege thy brow, (my favourite), you will also see how many ads and advocates are piggy backing on the cultural value of Shakespeare.

Kate McLuskie's research has been funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. She is a member of the British Library Board and a life Trustee of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

Bottled water is the marketing trick of the century

The Conversation - Wed, 23/04/2014 - 15:21

Writing in the Daily Telegraph Dr Phil Hammond, the GP, comedian and columnist wonders whether we have all swallowed the “water con”. Have we, he asks, abandoned rational thought?

The answer to this question, at least in terms of the way we purchase and consume bottled water, is emphatically: yes. Consider the probability, in the US, that in the next few years bottled water will overtake carbonated soft drinks as the largest beverage category. American consumers spent US$11.8 billion on bottled water in 2012, drinking an average of 140 litres each.

In the UK, the market is worth £1.6 billion per year and Britons drink more bottled water than fruit juices or wines and spirits. Consumption per person exceeded 34 litres in 2012, up from 26.9 litres in 2001. That growth shows no sign of slowing either, as consumption is set to reach 40 litres per person by the end of the decade.

Given the fact that UK tap water is widely considered to better for you than the bottled variety and subject to more stringent safety checks, why do we insist on purchasing something which is up to 300 times more expensive than what comes out of our taps?

According to Richard Wilk, professor of anthropology at Indiana University, bottled water is the most revealing substance for showing us how the global capitalist market works today. “In a sense”, he says:

We’re buying choice, we’re buying freedom. That’s the only thing that can explain why you would pay money for a bottle of something that you can otherwise get for free.

Why we buy is indeed explained, at least in part, by the triumph of advertising and marketing. Bottled water has become the indispensable and freely available attribute of those wishing to demonstrate their health and sophistication. Evian, for example, have long used the slogan Live Young which according to the company is the expression of Evian brand values, including origin, health and youth. The connotations of immortality are never far away from a brand which suggests its product’s “naturally pure and mineral-balanced water supports your body’s youth”.

The key to the marketing of bottled water is that it is a healthy alternative. But to what? As marketing expert Kathryn Hawkins has pointed out, bottled water is not sold as an alternative to tap water, but as an alternative to fizzy drinks. Hawkins highlights the Nestle Pure Life campaign which attempted to persuade mothers to replace one sugary drink each day with the company’s water products.

But the truth is, in the UK as it in the US, public tap water is of outstanding quality. In July 2012 the Drinking Water Inspectorate published samples from 1.9m tests in England and Wales which showed 99.96% compliance with legal standards – and as the Ecologist illustrated, the figure has been above 99% for nearly 20 years.

But image is paramount, of course, especially when you are trying to sell something which is essentially free, so packaging assumes primary importance. Advertising campaigns for Norwegian mineral water Isklar have emphasised it’s icy, pristine “pure glacier” quality, while the UK’s Highland Spring boasts, “Bottling water products from natural sources is all and everything we do. It’s our focus. Our specialism.”

Isklar. Pure glacier?

Such marketing implicitly contrasts the purity of the product with the artificiality of modern life. The purchase of bottled water allows us to communicate our uniqueness and the care we have for bodies and the environment.

And herein lies the problem. The packaging and marketing may suggest the beauty of the natural world but the reality has severe ecological consequences. The BeCause Water movement for water sustainability states that almost 3m tons of plastic are used to produce bottled water worldwide and 80% of this ends up in landfills. The Pacific Ocean now has an area twice the size of Texas called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch which is made up of plastic deposits.

There is a sense that things might be changing – that the environmentalists may yet win over the marketers. Last year the Ecologist magazine called the British public’s “love affair” with bottled water a national scandal. Professor Paul Younger, a specialist in water resources and groundwater engineering was quoted as saying, “The bottled water industry is very largely a scam, and a very expensive one at that, in terms of both money and extravagant carbon footprint.”

This is certainly the view of Elizabeth Royte, author of Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It. She contends that, like an iPod or a mobile phone, a bottle of water is “private, portable and individual”. And if ever there were an unholy trinity emblematic of a disposable culture, I suppose this is it.

John Jewell does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Just eat well – the £250m gym supplements industry isn’t working out

The Conversation - Wed, 23/04/2014 - 15:21

I am always amazed by the wide range of sports nutrition products on sale in gyms and sports centres. No matter the time of day, it seems gym goers are always drinking nutrient shakes. The sports nutrition market has grown rapidly in the UK in the last few years. In 2012 for example, it was worth around £260m.

There are health benefit claims all over these products, such as enhanced recovery, increased muscle mass, fat burning, improved muscle definition and improved “well-being”.

With so many of these messages out there, people are obviously keen to separate the good products from the bad. As a sports scientist I am often asked which ones people should consume when training. My general opinion is that supplements are unnecessary as you should be able to satisfy all your nutritional requirements with an appropriate diet.

But since this answer never seems to satisfy, what follows will look at some of the most common supplements and the data on their importance for those taking exercise. It is aimed not at professional body builders but at the sort of people who work out a few times a week.


The main reason for taking protein is to increase muscle mass, since it stimulates the body to produce muscle protein. This is well established, but what is often debated is how much protein is sufficient, what type to take and the best time to take it.

The best type appears to be whey protein. It is absorbed into the gut more than 70% faster than other options such as casein or soy protein supplements. This means it gets to the muscles quicker, which increases the rate the body builds muscle protein by more than 20% compared to the other options.

On the timing issue many gym goers will swear by something called the “anabolic window”. This claims that the protein needs to be taken within minutes of stopping exercise for any gains to be realised. Put simply, this is pretty much hype. The window is likely to last closer to 24 hours to 48 hours rather than a few minutes.

Eating isn’t cheating! Robert Fornal, CC BY-SA

As for how much protein to take, a recent study found that in young men of between 80kg and 85kg (12st 8lb and 13st 4lb) who weight-train regularly, it took 20g of whey protein to achieve the best possible result – what we in the trade call “maximal stimulation”.

Taking any more than 20g protein appears unnecessary, in this population anyway. It just leads to a lot of extra protein being excreted in the urine.


Creatine has been a popular supplement for many years, though it also occurs naturally in red meat, eggs and fish. Quite a large body of scientific evidence supports its use to gain muscle mass and enhance recovery.

The science says that when creatine is taken up into the muscle, it helps to generate energy. This allows the muscle to contract and exercise to continue. This can help enhance gains in muscle mass and strength in response to weight training.

But creatine’s effects on sport performance are less convincing. It increases body water storage, which increases body mass. In sports where body weight is important, this counteracts the muscle benefits and means there are unlikely to be benefits overall.


It is often assumed that vitamins are good for health. While that is true, when taken in excess the opposite can be true for both health and exercise.

In particular vitamin C and E, which act as antioxidants, have actually been shown to hamper the body’s adaptation to exercise training. Two recent studies found that people who took large amounts of the two vitamins (1000mg/day of vitamin C and 267mg/day of vitamin E) showed no improvement in aerobic fitness or exercise performance.

This level of consumption was 250 times the recommended dietary allowance for vitamin C and 80 times that for vitamin E – though well within the range of commercially available supplements.

The study produced another important finding. Two benefits of taking regular exercise are that human bodies become more sensitive to insulin, meaning the person is less likely to get diabetes; and they can produce more energy, through creating more of the “work horse” units in cells that are known as mitochondria.

The people in the study who took the vitamins found that these benefits were attenuated to some extent. This suggests that these supplements may do more harm than good, certainly if you take them in large quantities.


People don’t take caffeine to help adapt their bodies to training but rather for improved performance during a single exercise bout, such as on a competition day.

Taking caffeine supplements will indeed prolong your endurance during exercise. Coffee lovers will be happy to know that you can get the same benefits from coffee consumption, though I’m not sure if I can see folk slurping the stuff on the treadmill.

Energy drinks

Carbohydrate-based drinks have been around for a long time, having long been seen as worthwhile because of the way they increase the delivery of energy to the body and give it better hydration. But in recent years the evidence supporting their ability to improve acute exercise performance has been called into question.

While I am confident these drinks will be of use during prolonged intense exercise for durations of around two hours, they are often consumed during shorter duration exercise when they are likely to have little benefit.

Energy drinks R Us! Michael Jurena, CC BY-SA

There has also been a lot of concern in recent years about young children consuming these drinks, while performing little exercise, and unwittingly increasing their sugar and calorie consumption and possibly contributing to the obesity crisis. These drinks also often contain caffeine, which is not recommended for children either.

Other supplements

There are several other supplements available which claim to be of benefit to exercisers. These may include things like beta-alanine, fish oil, conjugated linoleic acid, L-carnitine, L-arginine, nitrate and vitamin D. Current evidence would suggest there is no apparent benefit in taking such supplements.

Supplement contamination

In a recent study 10% of supplements tested contained banned products, such as steroids. Clearly this is not only a concern for potentially failing a drugs test if exercising competitively but also it is extremely concerning to me that these substances could be in health products that can be picked up from your local supermarket.

In short, this takes us close to where we started. Nutrition products can benefit people that work out, but there’s so much misinformation that you may well be wasting money or even undermining your body’s performance.

If the question is, “what supplements should I take to enhance my exercise training?”, the simple answer is: Nothing. Exercise, have a balanced diet and enjoy it!

Stuart Gray receives funding from BBSRC, Tenovus Scotland, Smartfish (Norway) and Aker Biomarine (Norway).

Florence Nightingale carried the lamp but modern nurses carry the can

The Conversation - Wed, 23/04/2014 - 15:21

What would Florence Nightingale make of present-day healthcare? Like anyone else, she would probably find much to admire – even much to be in awe of – but just as much of which to disapprove and despair.

We might reasonably assume she’d appreciate our technology and be greatly heartened by the extraordinary leaps made on this front that allow more time to be spent with patients. One of the cornerstones of her philosophy, after all, was that healthcare is about “nursing the sick, not nursing the sickness”.

But she would be mistaken. It’s more accurate to say technology serves principally as a means of treating more patients, and is mainly used to get the conveyor belt they travel on to go faster. As the first female member of the Royal Statistical Society, Nightingale would surely discern as much if she were to set about familiarising herself with the metrics, targets and production-line methodologies that have come to dominate our way of working. It is also very likely that she would also detect the alarming reduction of the one characteristic she cherished above all others: compassion.

Nightingale might well pity her modern-day successors, the members of the profession she did so much to shape, who are habitually blamed for a lack of compassion when things go wrong.

Selective memory

“Compassion” was one of the healthcare buzzwords of 2013. The problems at Mid-Staffordshire, where shocking failings led to unnecessary deaths and appalling levels of care, made it so. But by and large, interpretation of what compassion is and why it is relevant has been decidedly selective; while the importance of compassionate qualities in individual nurses has been much discussed, compassionate qualities in the healthcare system as a whole has gone strangely unremarked.

In truth, compassion should be central to the very broadest strategies. It should be fundamental not only to people but to process and place. In other words, it should be a focus not just for those who work within the NHS but for those who manage its services. Existing business-style models of management tend not to lend themselves to such seemingly lofty ideals. Optimisation and efficiency are frequently at odds with the basic notion of finding time to think, talk, identify with and understand.

Restoring humanity

But there is hope. The pernicious influence of threat and blame, assembly line mentalities and the pursuit of benchmarks, workflows and trajectories as an end in itself is at last earning a measure of wider recognition – the Francis Inquiry report, which examined the causes of the failings at Mid-Staffordshire was one high-profile example. But recognition is also taking place more privately, as people, professionals and organisations grow increasingly disillusioned, amply indicated in a recent blog at the King’s Fund.

Far less appreciated, however, is how we sort out this problem. Education is one obvious answer. New public management thinking in recent decades – the language of business and bureaucracy – condemned the language of care to the margins. We’re now crying out for a renewed, and much greater, emphasis on how nurses can contribute in creative and practical ways to the design of compassionate interventions, processes and spaces. Something that reaches right back to Nightingale’s philosophy.

Physical surroundings also have a part to play. The workplace itself has to be conducive to compassion. Emotionally “warm” clinics are innately better than “cold” ones. Hospitals might usefully rediscover the concept of hospitality – not just for those they treat but for those who deliver the treatment. The pioneering Maggie’s Centres are a great example of this.

Whatever the specific answers might be, the overall goal should be to restore humanity to healthcare. The transformation doesn’t have to be inherently radical or, worse still, prohibitively expensive. It’s not so much a question of money: it’s a question of mindset.

More than a minute spare

Ultimately, what we need is a major move away from the current credo, which is that compassion is some sort of ointment that smiling practitioners can apply in the few seconds they have to spare. Healthcare is unworthy of the “blip culture” that Alvin Toffler presaged more than a quarter of century ago, where encounters are limited to short “blips” often of five minutes or less across multiples sites.

Compassion has to be systematic. And the message (and a framework) needs to come from the top. Everyone needs to be on board, it’s not just something that can be relied on to ascribe culpability to a single group.

Nightingale was revered as a role-model, an inspiration, the embodiment of all that’s noble and human about nursing; by contrast, the nurses of today are treated as little more than scapegoats. That’s how things have really changed: she carried a lamp and they carry the can. And that can’t be right.

Paul Crawford does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Hard Evidence: who are the NEETS?

The Conversation - Wed, 23/04/2014 - 15:20

Governments across Europe are searching for effective policies to drive down youth unemployment. Most European countries have experienced an alarming rise in the levels of young people (16-24) who are detached from both the labour market and the education and training system, and the scarring effects of long-term youth unemployment challenge them to mount successful and sustainable interventions.

The scale of the problem is made clear by Eurostat statistics published in February 2014, which show that at the end of last year, more than half of young people in Greece (59%) and Spain (54.6%) were unemployed. Only Germany had a level below 10%, at 7.6%.

The UK’s own figures for October to December 2013, meanwhile, showed that there were 1.04 million young people (aged from 16 to 24) who were not in education, employment or training (NEET), representing 14.4% of the cohort

There is a tendency to connect this substantial rise in youth unemployment to the post-2008 financial crisis, but a recent IPPR report points out that youth unemployment across Europe had “been rising relative to the unemployed rate of older adults for far longer”.

In the UK, the term NEET is now commonly used to evoke general disengagement and social exclusion among young people, not just unemployment. But while “youth unemployment” and “NEET” tend to be used interchangeably to quantify levels of inactivity, it is vital to make a distinction between the two counts.

Who’s a NEET – and who isn’t?

The term “NEET” emerged in the UK in the late 1990s to classify 16 to 18-year-olds who could no longer be counted as “unemployed” because of changes to unemployment benefit entitlement regulations. It is now applied more widely and covers a broader age spectrum, typically 15 to 24-year-olds. In contrast, the youth unemployment rate is more narrowly defined; it is simply the number of all young people (15 to 24) who are unemployed expressed as a percentage of the total number of people in that age group.

An emerging problem in England is a lack of comprehensive data on the current status of those within the age group, with wide regional variations in the proportions of young people whose status is known at all. Across the English regions, NEET rates among 16 to 18-year-olds at the end of 2012 did not match the rate of youth with no measured “destination” – a definition combining NEET young people with those whose status was unknown.

While it cannot be assumed that young people with unknown destinations after leaving education will all be NEET, the varying gaps between these two figures raise serious questions about the accuracy of official rates.

These concerns come at a time of serious cuts to Local Authority staffing and budgets. Recent research has unearthed widespread concerns that current tracking and data sharing systems could not be sustained if local authority staffing levels continue to be reduced.

Simultaneously, the rise of academies and free schools has left many core responsibilities devolved from local authority control. This includes the delivery of careers guidance, which is now increasingly in the hands of individual schools and colleges. These policy changes have fractured many authorities' established links with local schools and colleges, and have accordingly weakened their capacity to collect complete destinations data on school leavers.

What’s to be done?

These problems with post-16 destination data, and the escalating levels of destinations being recorded as “unknown”, show that we have a weak understanding of the circumstances, activities, and support needs of a significant proportion of young people. If we want to better understand the needs of those who are NEET and make appropriate and effective policy for them, we need to do a better job of understanding their broad characteristics.

For example, it is all too easy to assume that the majority of those who are NEET, or at risk of becoming NEET, are from clearly vulnerable or marginalised groups. While certain characteristics (poor educational performance, disaffection with education and low socio-economic status) are more prevalent, many young people who are NEET have average levels of attainment and live at home supported by their family.

They can all too easily become “invisible” in the data. Policy tends to focus on the most marginalised and vulnerable groups, while members of mainstream groups fly under the radar – until they become eligible for social security and associated benefits.

There is a clear case for reevaluating the NEET and unemployment counts as measures of youth disengagement – and rethinking whether the term “NEET”, as currently defined and applied, is appropriate at all. New, more precise tracking systems must to be introduced as a matter of urgency if policy is to successfully target the NEET group. Without a much clearer understanding of the scale of the problem, we can hardly expect it to get better.

Hard Evidence is a series of articles in which academics use research evidence to tackle the trickiest public policy questions.

Sue Maguire has received funding from the ESRC, the Department for Education and the British Academy.

Updated: 25 April 2014/ Responsible Officer:  College Dean / Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications